In a country suffering from a chronic irony deficiency, it was no surprise that academic Ashis Nandy’s glib remark about corruption and caste, made at the just-concluded Jaipur Literature Festival, morphed into a gargantuan controversy, as though he had risen on a pulpit calling for a caste war in India. Assuming the intimate setting of a literature festival as something similar to the lawns of the India International Centre in Delhi—he was after all chatting with people he likely thinks of as friends, publisher Urvashi Butalia, journalists Tarun Tejpal and Ashutosh, and British writers Patrick French and Richard Sorabji—Nandy said, probably ironically, that some of India’s most disadvantaged groups were the most corrupt. He, of course, didn’t mean that quite so literally: Later he clarified that the corrupt from the so-called lower castes are more likely to get caught, unlike the corrupt among the elite, who have the means to cover their tracks.

Headline-seeking politicians such as Mayawati were quick to demand that Nandy be jailed, without explaining why, as if holding a controversial view was a criminal offence. The Rajasthan unit of the People’s Union for Civil Liberties had to issue a statement clarifying that Nandy was not advocating hate—as though that wasn’t evident. And Rajasthan’s finest, who seem to have nothing more important to do, opened a formal inquiry. Novelist and poet Jeet Thayil, who read publicly from Salman Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses at last year’s festival (for which he, three other writers and the festival organizers continue to face possible charges), and who was awarded the DSC Prize this year, wrote this week how the Rajasthan Police deputed a “minder" for Thayil throughout the festival, presumably to act in case Thayil says something. Seeing him go from session to session listening to other authors, the officer asked Thayil: “Is this what you do? You talk all day about books?" Yes, Thayil said, and adds: “He said nothing more, but his expression of disbelief mixed with pity told me everything I needed to know."

Clearly, modern India is not the place for irony or satire, where Jonathan Swift could have written his A Modest Proposal, in which he suggested that the Irish poor should lift themselves out of poverty by selling their children as food to the rich. (The essay actually mocked the rich and the callous Irish policy of 1720s). Nor could Oscar Wilde have survived in contemporary India for his 1891 essay, where he provoked by saying that the poor weren’t grateful, but were “discontented, disobedient and rebellious". His point: to highlight the absurdity of the ruling class. Whether Nandy intended irony is now almost moot: the horses have left the barn; his supporters are presenting tortuous defence on Nandy’s behalf to his critics who want him to atone for his words, and who can’t tell apart real selves from “possible or retrieved selves"; and on TV networks, where each of his pauses and each nuance is being scrutinized, as if Nandy is suggesting that India rewrite the Constitution and disenfranchise the socially disadvantaged groups, or something similarly diabolical. Such is the pathetic state we have reached, by continuing to bow to every thekedar of a vote bank who wants “respect" for his group. And respect, in this lexicon, means to say nothing that he or she thinks of as even mildly critical.

This is now an epidemic, and it goes beyond academia. Even after the movie Vishwaroopam was certified by the Central Board of Film Certification, the Tamil Nadu government sought to ban it, asking film-maker Kamal Hassan to edit his film again by clipping a large chunk because some Muslim groups remain dissatisfied and have said that the film is offensive to them. (Nobody is forcing those groups to see the film, but their whole point is in preventing others from seeing it). The Madras high court lifted the stay on the film, but its opponents say they will go to the Supreme Court.

Then, there is the case of Sujata Patil, a police officer in Mumbai who wrote a poem critical of Muslim demonstrators at Azad Maidan in August last year. The poem is hardly a work of art, and as a serving officer, Patil should appear impartial, even though her anger is understandable. And by publishing her poem—albeit in an in-house journal—she may have violated service norms. The journal’s editors have apologized. But surely police officers don’t live in isolated ivory towers; they are part of the society in which there was justified, near-unanimous revulsion over the way the protesters acted—damaging a national monument and allegedly molesting women police officers. Patil’s poem would have carried some weight had the state done nothing. In each such case, the state empowers the offended, undermining free expression.

Kowtowing has costs—people will begin to watch their words, swallowing their real feelings. Imagine the toll on what remains of India’s intellectual life if scholars don’t say the unspeakable because it isn’t worth the trouble.

Salil Tripathi is a writer based in London. Your comments are welcome at salil@livemint.com. To read Salil Tripathi’s previous columns, go to www.livemint.com/saliltripathi

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